Path of Exile’s new expansion lets you build your own bite-sized hard mode

Path of Exile, more than any action RPG I’ve played, wants you to define the terms of your own suffering. With a highly customizable endgame and quarterly events like a double or nothing gamblers arena, there is a primary focus on choosing how you challenge yourself in exchange for loot. May’s upcoming expansion, Sentinel, brings what appears to be a new, more straightforward way to challenge yourself: a backpack full of consumable drones that power up your enemies while injecting them full of bonus items.

For players rolling new characters into this league, you’ll quickly find Sentinels dropping as loot from monsters. Each of these little drones has a color denoting its behavior, a power level, and (as always in PoE) a variety of modifiers and perks that change its behavior. These drones are equipped in special slots with their own hotkeys and can be deployed at almost any time during combat to spice up your current encounter.

A short but rewarding blast of Hard Mode ideally – or an embarrassingly self-inflicted death if you get cocky.

Red ‘Stalker’ wards hover near you for a minute or so, buffing any enemies they encounter, creating relatively controllable fury. Blue ‘Pandemonium’ wards fire immediately, buffing all enemies on screen and sometimes beyond. Yellow ‘Apex’ Sentinels behave like red ones, but will only target rare, unique, or boss bandits, leaving foraging alone. Each type of Sentry Gun can only be deployed once per area, so it’s up to you to choose which fights to spice up.

The Sentinels eventually run out of battery after several uses, and since Apple has apparently taken Wraeclast as well, there’s no easy way to recharge them. A new crafting item called the Power Core will allow you to discard two drained Sentry Guns to craft a new one with full battery and hybrid perks from its two ‘parents’. There are several types of kernel, changing how the robo-splicing procedure works. There are also rare ‘recombiners’ items that allow you to perform this splicing process on unwanted equipment of the same type.

The really interesting customization comes from the Sentinel Controller dashboard. It’s a circuit grid of buffs and modifiers that will apply to all your Sentinels, assuming their color type is connected to the grid. You only need power, which is obtained by killing Sentinel-buffed monsters. You can reconfigure your Sentinel grid at will, removing or placing wires as many times as you like, but you will never have enough power to fully max everything out. As with all things PoE, you can choose your poison.

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(Image credit: Grinding Gear Games)
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Path of Exile: Sentinel Expansion

(Image credit: Grinding Gear Games)
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Path of Exile: Sentinel Expansion

(Image credit: Grinding Gear Games)
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Path of Exile: Sentinel Expansion

(Image credit: Grinding Gear Games)
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Path of Exile: Sentinel Expansion

(Image credit: Grinding Gear Games)
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Path of Exile: Sentinel Expansion

(Image credit: Grinding Gear Games)

While the Sentinel system is quite complex, it’s not as flashy or ambitious as some previous leagues. It appears that Grinding Gear has divided its efforts between the new content and the continuation of the Atlas Of Worlds final review. Last season it received a major overhaul, allowing you to customize the types of events and encounters you play through using a special endgame skill grid. This update is doubling down, adding 20 more ‘key’ nodes for Atlas customization, allowing players to either completely remove their least favorite elements or focus purely on a narrower variety of monster-crushing opportunities.

There are too many new options to list them all here, but among the new Keystone nodes, these are the highlights:

  • There are some that make all enemies more tanky but less damaging (or vice versa), allowing you to adjust the difficulty to personal preference.
  • There are also quality of life nodes, such as Stream of Consciousness, which disables map modification with shards and instead gives the entire Atlas a 50% greater chance of providing content from previous Leagues on all expeditions. Good for the player who doesn’t want to move too much.

And of course it wouldn’t be a Path of Exile update without even more rocks to contend with. Several of these new grids allow for ‘uber’ versions of six endgame bosses, with all-new attack patterns and abilities. Judging by some of the footage I’ve seen, they’re leaning towards the ‘bullet hell’ date design. Expect to spend most of your time in these new encounters avoiding elaborate shooting patterns.

Going after these bosses will provide you with some new unique rewards. Specifically some new gems, items that can be inserted into your passive skill grid to further modify it. The regular non-uber forms are still worth hunting for as well, as this league is giving several endgame bosses unique new drops designed by the winners of a boss hunting contest Grinding Gear held last season.

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It’s not all challenges and pains in this update. There are a handful of quality of life features coming (mostly in the Atlas Of Worlds UI tweaking) and the official introduction of gamepad support for the PC version. This also means that Path of Exile should now be playable natively on the Steam Deck, though I wonder if Valve’s handheld will hold up during PoE’s notoriously final CPU strain.

So that’s a good chunk of new content coming to Path of Exile, but the last two expansions have seen Grinding Gear retire older, shaky parts of the game to avoid bloat. This time, nothing significant is being canned. Instead, last season’s Archnemesis league mechanic (where you created custom mini-bosses) has been stripped of parts, and its simpler, clearer set of monster modifiers will replace the current stack of verbs. It’s one of the few instances of simplification that PoE has seen recently, but it should mean you have to read a lot less text around the health bars, which is good.

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Path of Exile: Sentinel Expansion

(Image credit: Grinding Gear Games)
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Path of Exile: Sentinel Expansion

(Image credit: Grinding Gear Games)
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Path of Exile: Sentinel Expansion

(Image credit: Grinding Gear Games)

Another nice thing (especially for players happy with their current character build) is that there are no buffs or nerfs being introduced in this league, and no re-arranging of passive skill grids. There are no big new skills or class reworks to build your character. Path of Exile is famous for completely changing the meta (a word I won’t allow Facebook to tarnish) with every major update, but the monster mod changes and chaos the Sentinels are introducing should be spicy enough. Hopefully the regular chaos of full balance reworks will continue into the next league.

It would be remiss of me to ignore the polished, uberified elephant in the room; the looming specter of Path of Exile 2, the ambitious sequel announced in 2019. Between the pandemic and the harsh realities of game development, Grinding Gear admits we’re unlikely to see it until late 2023, possibly slipping further into 2024. Still, a major focus on these seasonal updates is paving the way for this big release. The plan is still to have the PoE 1 and 2 campaigns as separate experiences, but they both lead to the same shared Atlas Of Worlds ending, hence the focus on that. I would speculate that the monster modifier overhaul is something that will also carry over into the sequel.

The Path of Exile: Sentinel expansion feels more incremental than last season’s overhaul. It releases as a free update, as usual, on May 13th. A new character will be required to play the renegade buff-bots, but the endgame content will be open for existing characters to face off against.

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